Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster
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ASC HOME   1. How I Found Cybernetics


    This page provides a summary listing of contributions from participants in the 2008 ASC 'My Cybernetics' online discussion hosted on the CYB-COALITION email forum at Yahoo Groups.

The participants were asked to submit personal statements addressing the following 3 points or topics:

  1. How I Found Cybernetics
    (i.e., how I became acquainted and engaged with the field or its subject matter)

  2. What Cybernetics Means to Me
    (i.e., what value or utility I ascribe to cybernetics in my personal and / or professional life)

  3. Description of My Cybernetics
    (a statement describing cybernetics as you see it)

This webpage collates the contributions with respect to topic / point #1.

To review the contributions submitted for topic #2, click HERE

To review the contributions submitted for topic #3, click HERE



As a bio-psychologist I was attracted to cybernetics through the work of Gregory Bateson and his attempt to make an ecological theory of mind.

I was - and am - looking for an interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary framework that will allow a theory of information, cognition and communication and therefore also a theory of mind and meaning.

Bateson's lack of a theory of to whom the difference made a difference brought me to Maturana and Varela's idea of autopoiesis, which I have discussed with them both intensively and written papers using and criticising the theory. You can find my latest description of the limits of Bateson's theory in a chapter in this book: .

It made many soft Bateson fans angry.

In my opinion Maturana lack a theory of mind. Therefore I continued into Heinz von Foerster's theories and philosophy and analyzed it in a paper to his birthday.

Although his is a bit more realistic then the rest of the very radical contructivistic cyberneticians and he brings in communication as well ( in his corolary to Maturana) as well as necessity of the recognition of the other as real, he does not unfold a theory of the social.

In search of the I went to Niklas Luhmann. I am very fond of the way he uses and combines the model of three autopoietic systems and have written a lot of that. But I do not think he manages to include a phenomenological first person point of view in his theory although he claims to build on Husserl. I wrote a paper on that in the double issue we did last year in CHK "Luhmann Applied".

I have ever since studied Peirce's semiotic to find a theory and philosophy of the observer and that no-place in non-time of the origin of meaning, words and cognition that Lou describes so wonderful in his mail. A theory that include meaning, communication and the observer that cybernetics has not managed to produce yet. I have had and have very inspiring discussions with him on this interesting subject when he makes his column 'Virtual logic', trying to convince him that Peirce actually produced something that cybernetic - even second order cybernetics - is in need of. My discussion with Ranulph around his columns have been and still are important for this issue to.

I have collected my last 25 years of work on that idea in the book "Cybersemiotics: Why information is not enough", that I have finally received a copy of last week.

I am looking forward to receive - what must be severe - criticism from many of you of the solution I have attempted there in order to save many cyberneticians from becoming complete relativists and anti-science in order to escape central power and objectivism in order to celebrate the human aspect of human lives and creativity.



I don't know if I HAVE found cybernetics, or even if there is an IT to be found.

In my experience I encountered a group of people who like to think about the dynamic configurations of what we perceive, experience, and engage with in any given field. Not only that, but this loosely-knit eclectic group of people are generally aware that they do not have, nor cannot claim, any absolute truths for what they explore.

I come from a background of systems modeling, (ecosystems and the management concerns that arise) and hence take it as obvious that simulation models are not true, though sometimes very useful. Why should mental models, concepts, beliefs, etc. be any different? My encounter with the biology of cognition as presented by Maturana at the 1995 ASC conference (which I attended for unrelated motives) offered me an acceptable and credible basis for expanding this as a way of reflecting and living in comfort with the lack of Reality.

What I have appreciated as much as the ideas is the community; the people in ASC, and others I have encountered through the ASC. It is the quality of the conversations in terms of both the content and the mien that has been the core of what I have, in practice, accepted as "cybernetics".

Thus I became acquainted at a conference, and have engaged as a network of relationships and conversations with a predilection to exploring "how" rather than "what" of "why".



I had the fortune to meet Jerry Lettvin as a freshman at MIT in 1974. He headed an integrated freshman year program called Concourse whose theme that year was "Mind, Machine, and Meaning". It was a fantastic program -- we had professors who discussed everything from information theory to AI to philosophy of mind to politics of technology to history of mathematics.

Joseph Weizenbaum gave us a preprint of his book Computer Power and Human Reason, Lewis Mumford came and had lunch with us, Langdon Winner spoke about the politics of autonomous technology, Murray Eden taught us information theory, and professors had informal debates about the ethics of accepting defense grant money. I think we read Wiener's God & Golem and MacKay's Information, Mechanism and Meaning, and perhaps another book on information theory, Symbols, Signals, and Noise. It was far more enlightening and enlivening than the other three years at MIT that followed.... I was already thinking about biology, brains, and machines, but I imagine that many of Jerry's attitudes and ideas found fertile ground in my mind, and that I learned many cybernetic concepts from osmosis.

Spiritually, I am a theoretical biologist interested in realizing artificial intelligence through biologically-inspired design principles. I came to cybernetics formally as an undergraduate while I was looking for principles that might explain biological evolution and complexification. I thought then and still do now that one needs processes of open-ended complexification and creation of new functions to construct devices capable of autonomous learning. From library forays I came across biological systems theory (Waddington, Pattee, Rosen, Bertalanfy), self-organizing systems, bionics, biological cybernetics, hierarchy theory, systems theory, books like Jantsch's Self-Organizing Universe, autopoiesis, and many others.

I went to graduate school at SUNY-Binghamton in the Systems Science department seeking to develop a theory of emergent functions (how to design devices that adaptively make their own meanings through their interactions with their environs). Howard Pattee and Robert Rosen were the two people who had thought most profoundly about emergent structures and functions in biological systems. Howard was in Binghamton, one of the few systems & cybernetics programs then in the US. In my doctoral thesis, I developed a taxonomy of self-constructing devices that would be capable of adaptively constructing their sensors, effectors, and coordinative parts (nervous systems), and what this would mean epistemologically. In the course of working on this problem, I found Ashby, Pask, McCulloch, Powers, von Foerster and many others. I was lucky to attend a Gordon conference on cybernetics some time in the mid-1980's and an ASC meeting in Philadelphia where I heard von Foerster, Beer, and Maturana for the first time. A few years later, I came across Pask's electrochemical device in the literature, which was an example of an adaptive artificial device of the type I had postulated, i.e. one that created its own sensors in order to find the right observables that it needs to perform some function.



As a language and literature researcher (with a bit of mathematical background), I became interested in Structuralism and Semiotics. These theoretical currents have been influenced to a certain extent by cybernetics; to me, however, their connection with the mathematical theory of information and communication appeared to be far from clear. In fact, after reading Claude Shannon's "Mathematical theory of Communication" and Wiener's "Cybernetics" I realized that this connection is hugely problematic and needs a lot of clarification.

This compelled me to research the subject further, and led me to works such as "Autopoiesis and Cognition" by Maturana and Varela, but also to J. Klir's "Approach to General Systems Theory" and "Facets of Systems Science" and to R. Rosen's "Fundamentals of Measurement and Representation" and "Anticipatory Systems", where I found a lot of things relevant to my interests (in the area of linguistic and cultural communication) but also a lot more problems to be solved.

I didn't have anyone to guide my approach, because unlike in the 60's and 70's, there isn't that much interest in my field for cybernetics and systems theory, and theoretical trends tend to go in and out of fashion; whatever enthusiasm there was for cybernetics and systems seems to be largely gone, and whatever interdisciplinary interaction there is, has become "specialized" (as in, for example, automated language processing) and taken over by fields like computer science or neuroscience. Mostly, I find, attempts to "break" the disciplinary barriers come, these days, from the other side (e.g. Vilem Novak's "Alternative Model of Linguistic Semantics and Pragmatics" in the IFSR Systems Science and Engineering series). And, as far as I know, they don't have much of an echo in the humanities community. So I was pretty much on my own in my exploration of cybernetics, and the feedback I got so far was largely discouraging. The only encouragement came from Prof. Klir (whose works shaped my understanding of systems and mathematical modelling).



It was always there,just the word for it wasn't there initially. Since my early memories I was engaged in, and fascinated by, the workings of (my) encounters.

  • What does the other know about oneself?
  • What can one know about the other?
  • How can another get me to know something?
  • How can I get another to know something?
  • How and why are choices made for others?
  • Why should one accept choices others make on one's behalf?
  • How does one get to know?
  • What can be known?
  • What happens in negotiation, what is trust and what are the implications for authority and responsibility? And so on.

As a whole, my education drove me away from reflecting myself and my encounters in a process that was generally unpleasant. Objective reality, rationality, accountability and expected answers took the centre stage well into my own studies to become a teacher. In my teacher's examination I had to take too many different tests to study for all of them and I took one on pedagogy for dyslexia entirely unprepared, apart from being dyslexic myself (I am too messy to calculate reliably, a slow reader, I switch numbers, words etc. and only focus well if I am truly interested). In this examination I stated that I find it not acceptable to judge a person's ability to learn on the person's ability to produce expected observable behaviours, that it is not acceptable to label a person who does not display expected behaviour consistently as "disabled" and that I was less concerned about students with learning disabilities than about teachers with teaching disabilities. This (one of many similar anecdotes I can tell) was deemed outrageous and it has almost cost me my degree.



I found cybernetics during my graduate studies in architecture; i.e. about a decade ago. At the time, I was uncomfortable with the excess of formalism and determinism at school. (I was interested on non-top-down and adaptable design; the post-war epistemological shifts; the challenges brought by poststructuralist' postmodernisms; and the impacts of the so-call Informational Society.)

It led me to embrace cybernetics themes, and it expanded the framework of my research. (Out of curiosity, I remember to be dissuaded by older colleagues, who saw me as a promising theorist losing his time with a death discipline). I got a special interest on the work and career of second-order cyberneticist Gordon Pask - a humanist who acted as consultant to (among others) Cedric Price - the maverick of British architecture. Then I spent some years doing archival research, including exhaustive research at professor G's personal archive (held by his daughter at the time). It ended in my PhD, and following presentations.

(In short, the thesis provided a history of exchanges between architecture and the fields of cybernetics, systems research and computation. In particular, it focused on the achievements and encounters of Gordon Pask, Price and Frazer. In short, the first part of the thesis was dedicated to early developments in Cybernetics and architecture, including Pask's career and the rise of C2; the second part focused the rise of a project called Generator; and the third one focused on later achievements of Pask and others up to his death in 1996. It highlights their role in envisioning an evolving environment.)



As an architecture student, I was set the task of designing a supermarket. I hated the idea, so I set about undermining it by designing an automated warehouse, ordering and delivery system so no one had to visit a supermarket at all. Thus, we could avoid subliminal advertising and other marketing abuses. So I developed a design for an automated warehouse with telephone ordering from a catalogue and delivery (as it happens, by hot air balloon). This we now know as Internet Shopping, but in 1967 it was without precedent.

I was told that, designing such a complex, technical system, I needed to consult a cybernetician. A what?

Fortunately, my architecture school had one of these strange creatures on board as a consultant, and I went to meet him. In my memory, I spoke for 3 hours, quite unclearly, and then had what I could not express summarised with astonishing clarity in 3 minutes by the strange creature. I was astounded, and certain that the subject had something to do with this. So did the man, who was Gordon Pask. I was captivated, by both.

Some years later, Gordon told me he had got me a scholarship, and so, with no prior preparation and no knowledge of the academic world, I signed on to study for a PhD under Professor Andrew Gordon Speedie Pask.



I read Weiner's "Cybernetics", published in 1948. The sub-title pulled me in: "or control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine."

For me, it was fortunate that the text was rich with ideas because because the mathematics was incomprehensible.

In 1947 I had adopted Korzybski's Science and Sanity as my 'bible' (pub. 1933). I found immense satisfaction there, probably because at fourteen in 1938 I had started reading scientists like Eddington and Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm not a Christian."

This got me kicked out of my home, but I survived nicely.

In 1952 visiting the Korzybski General Semantic headquarters in Lakeville CT. I bought "Design for a Brain- Ashby". (I still have that original book published that year!) Then in 1956 his "An Introduction to Cybernetics."

My next major epistemological advance was in 1972, reading "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" - Bateson.

That book put everything I'd ever read into a new comprehensive framework. Here was a book that invoked both Korzybski and Cybernetics as reference points.



The summer before I went to college, in 1973, I picked up a book from the public library, called Our Own Metaphor, by Mary Catherine Bateson. It narrated in a conversational way a conference about our ecological predicament, which had taken place in 1968 and which had been organized by her father Gregory Bateson, who was then teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I already knew that I would be attending U.C. Santa Cruz that fall, in the residential college Kresge College which had a focus on humanistic psychology. Thus it was as a freshman one of the first courses I enrolled in was Kresge 152, "Ecology of Mind." I was to take four courses from Bateson during my undergraduate years.

My attraction to Bateson's work came from a confluence of interests. In psychology I was interested in alternatives to behaviorism that could enhance human potential. In cultural anthropology I was interested in culture and its variability. And in ecology I was interested in how we could understand the ecological crisis that I felt was the issue of our times. Bateson added to these a kind of biological emphasis: he had us as a homework exercise look at a living thing, and then try to describe how we knew it was living.

I had the opportunity to create my own major, but I didn't do that. However, I once proposed that I do so to Bateson. I had in mind a major in "cultural planning." His response was that I should indeed try to envision how to do cultural planning, until the time should come when I would emerge from that study with a "belly laugh." Because I would realize that "it can't be done." You can't plan culture. "You can't deal with love in that way."

I continued with undergraduate and graduate training in anthropology, eventually under Roy Rappaport at The University of Michigan, a student of Bateson's. I got increasingly out of step with trends in anthropology, explicitly purporting to repudiate both Rappaport and Bateson, though I now see how some of those trends can be reframed and understood in terms of second order cybernetics.



As a Human Factors Engineer, I designed systems and interfaces. The emphasis was on cognition rather than anthropometrics. I did this for many years in different formats (cockpit controls, paper flows, conveying systems, etc.). The conditions of the design were always 'utility' and sometimes subjective assessment. I worked happily inside of, never questioning (and rightly so) the validity of, human limits that are well documented in the human factors, ergonomics and engineering domains.

In the 90's, while working for the Boeing Co., I was assigned a research project into the area of managing human error (Boeing being keen to keep airplanes from falling out of the skies). The scope of our project quickly expanded from pilot error, which was the industry standard at that time, to include the production and maintenance of airplanes as well. This expansion was new thinking and very political as the agencies that monitor such things (FAA, NTSB) had a stake in the outcome. Our definition and mathematical probabilities were suddenly under much scrutiny, especially by ourselves, and required historical and legal explanations.

The definitions and algorithms being used for human error (really meaning lapses in human understanding) made no sense. Yet they were documented to some degree and the values accepted - although no one could say for sure where the values came from (an error will occur 1 out of 20 times, for instance). The legal definitions and systems set up for self-disclosure (ie., admitting you screwed up so we could analyze and design for it) that hinged on these definitions, and especially allowances for pilots versus mechanics, made even less sense.

The irony: the project was a huge success. Many airlines around the world participated. The net result: error rates stayed exactly the same although we managed to adopt a few new definitions and flaunted an expanded scope. While writing the concluding report, I turned briefly to systems theory, esp related to complexity, throwing in a few of Peter Senge's dizzying, circular, +/- graphics that were all the rage about then.

It was here I began to feel the grumbling of discontent. I HAD to learn something about systems theory that could explain our experiences inside this project but, more importantly, I wanted to frame human understanding in a more useful manner. I signed up at Antioch University in Seattle for an advanced degree in Wholistic Systems and along the way got introduced to Bateson, von Foester, Maturana (and many of the people in this society). It was shocking to find myself falling down that rabbit hole. What was more shocking was my complete abandonment of business systems in favor of human systems.


Jixuan Hu

Back in 1970s-80s Cybernetics was thought as a way to break through the ruling Maxism ideology by a number of pioneer intellectuals in China. Cybernetics, System Theory and Information Theory became my major focus while I was a university student. My first reading was Norbert Wiener's Human Use of Human Beings, followed by reading related sections in Encyclopaedia of Computer Science, a gift to me from the author of Engineering Cybernetics (TSIEN Ssue-Shen, 1954), along with his other articles promoting "System Engineering" as an improvement of China's management. During 1981-1986 I was deeply involved in the group of China's young reform-minded activists and took cybernetics ideas as a medicine to heal the "brain-damage" of our generation from the brain-washing-education force-fed to us, as well as a driving force to participate the efforts of reforming Chinese society. I was among the ealiest group in China to use System Dynamics modeling to deal with social-economic issues (such as in contracted governmental "Five-Year Planning" research projects).

In 1986 I went to U.S. and studied under Stuart Umpleby as a visiting schoolar for two years, during that time, introduced by Stuart, I met Heinz von Foerster, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask, Humberto Maturana, Robert Trappl, Klaus Krippendorff and many other colleagues in ASC. I started publishing in journals such as Cybernetics and Systems (1988, 1991) and CATO Journal(1991) on cybernetics related topics. I went back to China in summer 1988 but having to leave again in summer 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. From 1990 to 1994 my Ph.D. work in management and organizations under Stuart's advisary was focused on cybernetics and system theory and since then I was considered a "Chinese cybernetician" in various conferences in U.S. and Europe. (But after "911" I decided to become an American citizen, or a "world-citizen", so lost my Chinese citizenship.)

My current work seems within the field of organizational development, group dynamics, oriental organizational behavior, cross-cultural communication, and organizational learning etc., but they are all related with cybernetics.



As an aspiring academic, sophomore at Oberlin College in 1983, I was contemplating a poor math degree while encountering the mystery of the concept of "information". I constructed an individual major in Cognitive Science, reading in cognitive philosophy, computer science, semantics, and linguistics. Wandering the library stacks I found Kenneth Sayre's _Cybernetics and the Philosophy of Mind_, Valentin Turchin's _The Phenomenon of Science_, and von Bertallanfy, Ashby, and Krippendorf. Professors led me to Bateson and Semiotic Theory, and I ended up writing an honors thesis laying out the framework for probabilistic representations of semiotic information (entropic modeling) as a basis for a universal evolutionary science (while still also taking the math degree).

After college, while working as a software engineer, I was introduced to Stuart Umpleby and attended the 1986 Conference of the Society for General Systems Research. This led to enrolling at SUNY Binghamton in 1987 to study under George Klir, Howard Pattee, and Valentin Turchin (then at CUNY). While studying the breadth and depth of the Systems Sciences, Cybernetics, and Semiotics, I took an MS and PhD in Systems Science there by 1994. I joined the ASC and the SGSR (now the ISSS) which I have been a member of since, and attended their conferences for many years; founded CYBSYS-L, the first (to my knowledge) electronic forum for cybernetics and systems, in 1988; with Turchin co-founded the Principia Cybernetica project in collaborative development of a cybernetic philosophy in 1989; and co-authored "The Cybernetic Manifesto" with him in 1990.



Found the book "Laws of Form" by G. Spencer-Brown in 1974. Taken by the beautiful and profound formalism for a calculus of distinctions. Changed my perception of foundations of mathematics and foundations of epistemology. Related to prior reading about Buddhism and (partly) orthodox Jewish upbringing, coupled with recent (1972) PhD in Mathematics. Paticipated in a seminar on Laws of Form in Chcago from 1974 onward to about 1977. Paul Uscinski and I worked on the reentering mark. Then encountered Francisco Varela's work and also Heinz von Foerster's review of Spencer-Brown. We once called Heinz on the phone about our seminar. Much laughter! Visited Francisco Varela in late 1970's and wrote paper "Form Dynamics" with him. Went to summer sessions at the Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado in early 1980's and taught Laws of Form there. First cybernetics conference, hosted by Heinz von Foerster, in Pescadero California in 1982. Have participated in cybernetics since that time.


I studied design at the Ulm School of Design, a post war avant gard institution in Germany, now famous because it no longer exists. Norbert Wiener gave a lecture there before I became a student but the topic of cybernetic continues in discussions. In 1959, to learn English, I took a summer job in Oxford England where I bought two books, Ashby's Introduction to Cybernetics and Wittgenstein's Tractatus. I can't say that I fully understood either of them at that time but they turned out most influential to my academic future.

I got a fellowship to study at Princeton University. as a academic green horn, I hated this place. Students were snobbish and arrogant and I found nothing there of what I came to study. In search of a better university I passed through Urbana, talked to a design professor there who told me about Heinz. I visited BCL and told Heinz of the catalogue of my interests. He mentioned in passing that Ashby was at U of I and teaching a course in cybernetics. This made my decision to stay there.

I studied with Ross. After the one year course was over, I organized a cybernetics club with his former students. I managed to get Ashby on my dissertation committee together with social science professors. My dissertation was about content analysis as a methodology. I wrote one chapter for Ashby, developing a set theoretical information theory to quantify the amount on information needed to make the kind of inferences that content analysts make. I graduated in communication which I considered close enough to cybernetics and design.

I became a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and in 2000 I received an endowed professorship for cybernetics, language, and culture, named after Gregory Bateson whom I had invited and who had taught in my seminar.



My main interest is in the dynamics of scientific communication and technological innovation, and my background is in sociology. Since coordination among people is based on communication and control, this brought me to socio-cybernetics. Actually, I approached this field (during the second half of the 1980s) via studies about entropy statistics because entropy statistics allowed me to combine multivariate and time-series analysis of scientific communications.

Scientific communication self-organizes into paradigmatic structures, e.g., disciplines and specialties, and these processes can be measured in terms of distributions of co-occurrences of words and cited references. Entropy statistics enables us to statistically decompose and relate these processes quantitatively at different levels of aggregation (e.g., articles, journals, sets of journals, etc.).

The autopoiesis model of Maturana & Varela was used by Luhmann for modeling interhuman processing of meaning. By providing meaning, an anticipatory system (Rosen, 1985) models the historical events from the perspective of hindsight and selects from a horizon of possible meanings. This generates intentionality. I am interested in using models increasingly available in the computation of anticipatory systems (Dubois) for addressing research questions about intentionality and its communication at the supra-individual level (Husserl).



I was a junior in high school, when I first read Norbert Wiener's _Cybernetics_, and I did not understand much of it, but I got the sense that it was profoundly important. A few years later, while studying comparative religion, I encountered the more lay-friendly _The Human Use of Beings_, which opened my eyes to a whole new world*: everywhere I looked, I found people finding niches everywhere they looked; saw how their intentions became encoded in their circumstances, and how their circumstances, in (re)turn, informed their intentions. I enrolled in a vocational program in industrial electronics and robotics, with academic interest to understand automation and how language translated to mechanical activity (I am reminded of Jewish golems: clay statues animated by inscriptions of holy words). My technical education soon facilitated a career developing enterprise resource planning systems, but all the while, I continued studying religion, and eventually focused on magic (often differentiated from religion by its emphasis on efficacy). I also continued reading everything I could find about cybernetics.

* Rather, it partly opened my eyes to such things as I described, and partly confirmed observations I had already made but had not expressed so eloquently as Norbert. Reading _The Human Use of Human Beings_ felt like returning to a familiar and validating setting, and it also encouraged me to consider things I had not previously.



My interests were (and are) creativity, musical composition, and understanding of learning/knowing. In 1967 Herbert Brun told his acoustics class (in which I was enrolled) that he and Heinz von Foerster were conducting a course on "heuristics." From there I took many courses with Heinz and Herbert, both separately and together. I became a graduate student member of BCL and Heinz and Herbert became my thesis advisors. Heinz and Herbert had very different views about language. Their opposing views and their collaboration resulted in my learning to take care language.


I met Gordon (Pask -Ed.) in 1974 in his office in Richmond by the first time and we have been in touch until his death. My thesis last 11 years to be completed (!!!!) (Gordon told me since the very beginnings that it would not last less than 8-10 years and asked me whether or not I would accept it I obviously accepted the challenge not only because we loved him (my wife and I) and Elizabeth far beyond the professional relationship but also due to the nature of the theme This happened in a day that I shall never forget: 15 March 1975, a historical day with deep connotations (it was the day in which Julius Caesar was murdered and in Rome there was the celebration of an old Pagan ritual related to the Spring Equinox). At the same time that Gordon proposed the theme of my thesis (in those temporal conditions) he invited me to be a Professor in the Chelsea College. Thanks to him I have been in contact with the 'big bosses' of cybernetics: Maturana, Varella, Lars Longfren, Heinz, Ernst von Glass, etc., as well as men and women of other fields (History, Epistemology, Logics ,etc.). For example, Margaret Borden, Karl Popper and John Eccles were suggested by him (together with Zadeh) as members of the jury of my PhD examination.

My thesis was entitled "Science as a Growing System" and although my background belong (primarily) to the realm of physical sciences (I got a Master Degree as Electronic Engineer) I had a broad interest in humanistic disciplines (I had been a free student in the humanistic university of Lisbon for some years). At the same time I was engaged in a psychoanalytic process. So, Gordon was clever enough to bind all these areas and the "growing science " he referred to was deeply related to the rational and IRRATIONAL processes that had framed the construction of the successive Images of Nature from the Sumerians (!!!) until the Renaissance, using his system (CASTE) and my fuzzy logics. In the present-day terminology the thesis entailed a historical-scientific perspective of the emergence of those Images as a non-trivial (state-transition) fuzzy machine.

After the thesis, he suggested me to deepen and erect some models of human affections and cognate irrational processes using my psychoanalytic knowledge (this in an epoch in which everybody's attention was focused on logical reasoning only). This stage last several years and finally some day in 93, in the Atheneaum Club in London we had a very serious conversation about the future of cybernetics and the possibility of endowing consciousness to machines ("Which type of machines?"). This topic has framed my research in the last 7 years.

This has been a long journey and a long message. But you can see how influent Gordon (and the people I knew by means of him, as for instance Heinz ) was/were not only in my research path but also in my own vision of the world.



From my perspective, cybernetics found me, more than once. It found a freshman in college, seduced by the viewpoints of Jerome Y Lettvin, a biologist, which i was not.

It found the prepared mind (see above) of a researcher and Ph.D. student in Negroponte's lab (when it was called The Architecture Machine Group, before the Media Lab), seduced by the personae of Gordon Pask.

It found my antagonism for AI in all its reductionist castration of the experience of living. It satisfied my desire for a science of being human. It created a method for me to write software, solve problems, guide design (my own and others'), and live more aware and contentedly in the swarm of complexity that we live in .



I had a narcissistic, but highly intelligent professor, who, based on his expertise in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, promoted a synthesis of constructivism and realism, constructive realism (CR). He introduced me to Heinz von Foerster, and both of them supported me in re-writing his CR as a cybernetic theory in accordance with Heinz's relativity principle. ("If a Hypothesis holds separately for A, and it holds separately for B, it can only be accepted if it also holds for A & B together.") I finally wrote a paper as a feedback loop expressing how my ways of understanding and not-understanding bring forth my understanding of this theory; through the very process, my understanding of this theory brings forth my understanding and perception of myself as a writer and reader (observer)of this theory.(Understanding Understanding Understanding Not-Understanding Pawlik 2005) I guess what made it attractive for Heinz and irritating for most others was that through this peculiar form the paper could be re-viewed as merely describing a theory of how one constructs his world, describing a way of using language for which this theory is an example or simply describing how the world is; thus, the position of the observer varyingly disappears, reappears, inside or outside the presented form or not existing at all, depending on your interpretation of what can not be said. (Reflections on the meaning of the unknowable build the axis of the papers epistemological structure)

An academic pause followed in which I focused on teaching Taiji chuan, Qigong and family Gongfu style, during which only a few papers again relating to the subject of self-reference got published.

Still my interest in cybernetics was preserved through a lasting dialogue with Barbara Vogl and my assistance in the development of Heinz's last book "Part of the World". Eventually this led me to write my Ph.D. thesis, in which the context of the development of the personal and professional relationship to Heinz and his work is used to show how his idea of "Systemics" as unity of both art and science, professional and personal, could be realized in a systemic Ph.D. thesis. (Patterns of Re-generation; Wissenschaftspoesie as a public private affair, Pawlik 2006). In brief, I used the context of writing a thesis to become aware of how my work re-generated my life and my personality, as well as the other way around and showed how I perceive this dynamic of re-generation and act upon it to regenerate the patterns of re-generation within which I perceive myself living in this world. This is done in the form of a poem containing poems within poems, stories within stories, various cybernetic papers of self-referential structure as well as a small epistemological treatise explicating the epistemological pattern of propositions on which my work is based. Naturally the thesis can also be read as a story telling how this thesis came into being, a dissertation about the writing of my dissertation.



My first contact with the word "cybernetics" was in a required electrical engineering course called "Elements of Communication". The textbook for the course was Ross Ashby's "An Introduction to Cybernetics". It was my favorite course as an undergraduate (the instructor was excellent). I particularly enjoyed the exercises in the book. It was fun! My next contact was in a graduate operations research (OR) course. Some of the "modeling" concepts in Ashby's book were also present in OR--Markov processes, dynamic systems, etc. Again, I thought it was fun! Later, in an MBA course on Organizational Theory, cybernetic concepts re-emerged under the umbrella of systems theory - homeostasis, entropy, information, feedback, self-organization, etc. This time, however, I began to see how the concepts might be used to address what I regarded as disturbing organizational and social issues, both locally and globally. Although no longer "fun" in the initial way I had experienced, for the first time I had a sense of direction with respect to what I wanted to study and advance.

When I selected a doctoral program, one of the criteria I used was that there had to be courses I could take with the word cybernetics in the title. The University of Pennsylvania was the only institution I found with such courses. These courses were in the Annenberg School of Communication and I was in the Wharton School, so I sought out the Professor who taught the courses. Thus began my tutelage under Klaus Krippendorff, who became my teacher and mentor, and later colleague and friend. I learned that I could not address the seemingly intractable social issues I had identified without including myself in the issues I was observing, and being open to changing my formulation of those issues and my desires with respect to them. It was Klaus who convinced me to present my first paper, "Beyond Planning", at a general systems conference (while ASC was on a six year hiatus), at which I had a chance to hear, and in some cases meet, Heinz von Foerster, Francisco Varela, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Margaret Mead, Stuart Umpleby and others. When Stuart asked me to organize the first meeting of a re-established ASC in 1981, my future with cybernetics was assured. Not only did I continue to confront new ideas and ways of thinking, I also found the people who I met and with whom I talked to be fascinating in their variety and creativity.

Subsequently, I had opportunities to work with Gordon Pask when I hosted him for three 8-week Guest Lecturer residencies at Old Dominion University and had many conversations with Herbert Brün over a period of almost 20 years. These interactions (and many with others--e.g., Rod Donaldson, Annetta Pedretti, Mark Enslin, Susan Parenti, Steve Sloan, Judy Lombardi, to name just a few) have proven key in the formulation of "my cybernetics". I regard the "Urbana circle" (and the School for Designing a Society) to be a continuing source of inspiration as I refine and alter my ideas further.



I encountered cybernetics as an undergraduate in psychology (1964-68). David Stewart, still active today in the UK Cybernetics Society, gave a course of lectures on cybernetics and I was hooked. I was persuaded psychology needed to be scientific and needed a better way than behaviourism. Cybernetics offered that - and more.

I read Miller, Galanter and Pribram's (1960) book on Plans and the Structure of Behaviour, a key text marking the rise of cognitive psychology and, eventually, 'cognitive science'. The authors make clear their indebtedness to cybernetics. I also recall W Sluckin's Men, Minds and Machines as a good introductory text.

Thanks to David Stewart, I spent 6 months working with Gordon Pask at System Research Ltd as a research assistant. I took a Pask paper (A Cybernetic Model for Some Kinds of Learning and Mentation), a 50 plus (!) page conference paper and worked through its 70 or more references in order to understand it. This was one of the most intense learning periods of my life. It lead to my getting a good degree and becoming committed to cybernetics.

After I graduated, I went back to work with Pask. I was with him until 1978, witnessing, amongst other things, the birth of conversation theory after many years of gestation. On the way, I gained a PhD in cybernetics from Brunel University.



My name is Bill Seaman. I am Chair and Graduate Program Director at Rhode Island School of Design in the Digital+Media Department.

Here are some snippets that trace my interest in cybernetics...

I'll start with a quote...

"Cybernetics, a word coined by Norbert Wiener to describe the complex of sciences dealing with communication and control in the living organism and in the machine." When Wiener introduced the term, which is derived from the Greek ... meaning governor or steersman, he was unaware that it had already had a considerable history and that it had been used more than a century before by Andre Ampere to cover the purely governmental side of such a theory, in the positivistic classification of scientific theories.

As a matter of fact not only Ampere... but Plato had used the word... (which would be transliterated as "cybernetics") in Gorgias. Although Plato used the word more or less in relation to the art of navigation, it is highly interesting, as pointed out by Watanabe, that Plato compared cybernetics with rhetorics because he viewed both as concerned with influence and control entirely different in nature from knowledge of some fixed reality such as astronomy or geology. "(Wiener, 1985, p.215)

WIENER, N. 1985. Norbert Wiener: Collected Works with Commentaries. Cambridge/London: MIT Press I came in contact with Cybernetics first while studying at MIT in 1985 through Wiener's writing.

WIENER, N. 1967. The Human Use of Human Beings; Cybernetics and Society. New York: Discuss Books.

I later became focused on Cybernetics during my study at the Center for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Art, University of Wales, with Roy Ascott functioning as my advisor. Ranulph often visitedŠ One of the other students was writing on Gordon Pask and this opened my deep interest in him. And of course Bateson came up often in discussion. Later I met Peter Cariani also . He was interested in Pask and we have become good friends. See his impressive website: See also BATESON, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing, Co.

Roy Ascott saw the potentials of behavioural relations in terms of works of art. In his paper entitled Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision, published in 1966, Ascott presented the following concept:

"Behaviourist Art constitutes, as we have seen, a retroactive process of human involvement, in which the artefact functions as both matrix and catalyst. As matrix, it is the substance between two sets of behaviours; it neither exists for itself nor by itself. As a catalyst, it triggers changes in the spectator's total behaviour. Its structure must be adaptive implicitly or physically, to accommodate the spectator's responses, in order that the creative evolution of form and idea may take place. The basic principle is feedback. The system Artefact/Observer furnishes its own controlling energy; a function of an output variable (observer response) is to act as an input variable, which introduces more variety into the system and leads to more variety in the output (observer's experience). This rich interplay derives from what is a self-organising in which there are two controlling factors; one, the spectator is a self-organising subsystem; the other, the art work is not usually at present homeostatic...

There is no prior reason why the artefact should not be a self-organising system; an organism, as it were, which derives its initial programme or code from the artists creative activity and then evolves in specific artistic identity and function in response to the environment which it encounters. "(Ascott, 1966, p.11)

ASCOTT, R. 1966. Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision. Cybernetica, International Association for Cybernetics, Namur, IX, pp.247-264.

My Ph.D thesis was entitled: Recombinant Poetics: Emergent Meaning as Examined and Explored Within a Specific Generative Virtual Environment, c1999. I have many texts on my website including this one at I have a history of interest in works that explore meta-meaning systems...

I got all of the Macy Convention books and read them one summerŠ I collaborated on a paper with Andrea Gaugusch:

(Re)Sensing the Observer Offering an Open Order Cybernetics (

Andrea Gaugusch & Bill Seaman

What we need now is the description of the "describer" or in other words, we need a theory of the observer. (Heinz von Foerster, Observing Observers)


Instead of presuming the "observer" as given, we are (re)sensing the observer and are thereby offering an "Open Order Cybernetics" (OOC). We are first of all concerned about our use of language as the precondition for any meaningful statement. This self-reflexive point of departure distinguishes our project from philosophers who are first of all presuming "something" ("senses", "objects", "subjects", "language" etc.) without being aware of their presumptions i.e. that they are already able to talk meaningfully about "something". We are undertaking a self-reflexive loop towards our already undertaken meaningful actions, reflecting inside of our concepts on our concepts, trying to find out how our concepts about "something" have come into existence. We are reflecting on our concepts through this on-going open investigation. We are sketching the ramifications of such a self-reflexive loop for epistemology as well as for the main research-areas within cognitive science (i.e. language-acquisition, perception, consciousness). We are also pointing towards the arts and virtual reality as awareness-aids, helping us in our self-reflexive endeavors.

More recently I have been collaborating with Otto Rossler, theoretical biochemist and physicist on the creation of an Electrochemical Computer and developing a model for an intelligent, situated robotic system. We are currently working on a book entitled Neosentience. A number of papers can also be found at related to this project.

Pask early on articulated the following : Chemical computers arise from the possibility of 'growing' an active evolutionary network by an electro-chemical process.

Pask, G. 1961. An Approach to Cybernetics, with a preface by Warren S. McCullock, Harper and Brothers, MIT press (pg. 105)

Ranulph has done a lovely write up on this book.

I have of late been reading:

Mechanisation of Thought Processes Proceedings of a Symposium held at the National Physical Laboratory on 24-27th November 1958 Volume II. National Physical Laboratory Symposium No. 10. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1959, p. 879

Physical Analogues to the Growth of a Concept by Gordon Pask Introduction

In this paper I discuss the circumstances in which we can say a machine "thinks", and a mechanical process can correspond to concept formation. My point of view about this question is as follows. It is reasonable to say that a machine does or does not "think", in so far as we can consider the working of the machine as in some way equivalent to a situation or an activity, (for example, riding a horse), which is familiar, and in which we ourselves are used to taking a part. Thus, when I speak of "thought", (as when saying a sonata is written, or a hairpin is invented, as a result of "thought"), an end product is introduced on which to hang the thinking process. The process itself is a descriptive expedient, a king of analogy. Clearly the sonata was not written "by thinking", (in the sense of "by magic" or "by using a computor").



I volunteered at the Gesundheit! Institoot ( in WV for many years, during which I would regularly see a poster promoting the School for Designing a Society ( I paid it little heed- one of the many fantastic projects in the world.

In my early twenties I did a lot of work with education, conflict resolution, and facilitation, especially with grassroots organizations that aspired to model/instigate social change (a la lefty politics). A time came when I decided I would go on a tour of intentional communities ( to determine what such communities described as their needs with regard to conflict resolution. I would then, in light of their described needs, pursue training that would make me useful and relevant to meeting them. My first stop was to be SDAS, in Urbana, IL. I was going to go for a week, but Mark Enslin convinced me to get the full experience I would need to be there the whole session, one month.

When I arrived there, Steve Sloan, who had taught cybernetics, was no longer active in body as a teacher. However, a group met weekly, often hosted by Ben Emerick, which was called, 'Cybernetics'. I didn't know what it was, and the class didn't teach me.

There was a scribe who took notes about the content, and a meta-scribe who wrote the content of the content-carriers: the loop of herself describing the selves describing the environment and content they observed themselves observing. There was a lot of silence and descriptive sentences. These descriptions ornamented conversation rooted in a short piece of introductory content such as the distinction between 'complicated' (many elements) and 'complex' (many relationships).

In Urbana, at SDAS, I was challenged consistently, for the first time in my life, to hold my language accountable to my desires. What did my sentences do for or against my interests? In the past I would say very interesting things, or quite banal things, and the response rate was nearly identical. I'd learned at age 14 that I could put very little effort into my schoolwork and still be praised. At SDAS, what I did was measured against what I said I wanted to do- I had social support for self-observation! I knew this had something to do with second-order cybernetics (which was described to me in terms of a radio controlled car). I didn't know what cybernetics was, though. I liked myself in this environment so much I stayed on a few extra weeks. As I departed, people encouraged me to move there.

When I returned to Worcester, MA, I received a song written about me living in Urbana. I had never been in an environment which noticed my noticing and valued it so!

Visiting a friend, I went to UMASS and looked up cybernetics in its huge library. My response consisted of many large tomes in technical language about artificial intelligence. This was a far cry from my beloved conversations. It was clear I would not learn about cybernetics alone.

For these reasons, and more, I collected my things and moved to Urbana and SDAS for as far as the eye could see (which is a good while, considering how flat it is here in the mid-west).



There are several threads to this, perhaps starting with my becoming enchanted by constructivism through being introduced to this via George Kelly's 'Personal Construct Psychology' (PCP).

I have a PhD in an area of biology which is astride both animal and human nutrition, completed while I was an academic in agriculture at the University of what is now Zimbabwe. Following this I took opportunities to gain a qualification in human nutrition in London, migrate to Australia and obtain a position in a new medical school in Adelaide to set up and run a graduate course in Nutrition and Dietetics.

A student, Chris Bell, who had just done an honors degree in virology came to me to say that he wished to do a PhD with me. Very quickly we came to the mutual recognition that our interest lay not in biological type questions but rather 'Why do people choose to eat what they do in particular contexts?'

Deciding to pursue this was fateful, to say the least! For although this was fascinating to us it was not one that we were academically prepared for, nor was it a medical question. Both very severe constraints in a new institution wishing to establish its reputation for hard nosed biomedical research.

We did not have a clue as to where to begin in addressing our question. And observed, in tune with a comment we saw in 'Science': 'That in the early stages of a research and development project you can see ... absolutely nothing!'

A 'chance' finding of a book called 'Frames and Cages' - on PCP - by Chris led us to follow our passion by seeking understanding of decision making about food choice through this constructivist approach.

To cut a long (and tortuous) story short the (very fine, in my opinion) PhD was completed and granted (in the early 80's, with some difficulty) but produced no career option for Chris as we had opened up a new field of enquiry – which is not meant to happen in a PhD program! While I have not kept a close look at the field I am not aware of anyone else working up the notion that food has no meaning except what we supply to it. And that there are very useful systems analytic models which can greatly assist in understanding the kinds of belief which underly these meanings in diverse contexts.

Moving on ... In 1980 Prof Jack Farquhar, head of the world's first major community health initiative on heart disease (The Stanford Heart Disease Prevention Program) visited Adelaide. He expressed great interest in the 'constructivist' approach to understanding food choice that I was engaged in and invited me to spend time with his group. This led to my being a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Stanford in the second half of 1981.

It was during this time that I had a truly life changing experience. This was meeting Heinz and Francisco while attending a conference entitled 'Disorder and Order'. For what I heard from them excited me greatly. I obtained a copy of the proceedings and recordings of their presentations.

And took these back to Adelaide to have lively discussions about them with a small group of interested people. This included Allen E Ivey, a visiting scholar, who was very encouraging. (Writing this brought Allen to mind; we have not had contact for many years).

This led me to set up the 'Cybernetics Group' with a colleague and great friend, John Graham. We kept this going for over 10 years from the mid 80s to 90s, with meetings 3-4 times per year.

A wide range of topics chosen loosely focused on self organizing systems. Some of which were informed by 'Autopoiesis and Cognition' and by 'The Tree of Knowledge.' Others from jamming on drums!

Among the 'happenings' of our lively group which emerged from these influences was bringing Humberto to Adelaide, twice. This was in collaboration with Relationships Australia (formerly Marriage Guidance Council).

And a most enjoyable visit by Ranulph to my home for a meal and conversation with a group of stalwarts about matters cybernetical.



I began my undergraduate studies in engineering at the U of Illinois. I was told that engineering was "the application of science to the solution of human programs." That was exactly what I wanted. However, for my taste the engineering curriculum had too many machines, too little science, and too little discussion of human beings and societies. I really liked the style of thought in physics. I attended the physics colloquium (guest speakers) as often as possible. I covered some of the talks, e.g., Edward Teller, for the campus newspaper. I expanded my curriculum into a 5 year program, earning a BS in mechanical engineering and a BA in political science. For graduate school I chose political science (decision-making in large social systems). However, I felt the people in political science, while trying to be scientific, did not understand science as I had learned it through physics. From time to time I heard Ross Ashby or Heinz von Foerster speak on campus. I was impressed. I felt they were speaking about information processing and decision-making in a manner consistent with the philosophy of science. So, I started hanging out at BCL and reading BCL publications.

As a doctoral student in communications I worked in the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (the PLATO system) developing computer-based communication media (what we now call the internet). I and a group of graduate and undergraduate students received several grants from NSF and the C.F. Kettering Foundation. (see We used cybernetics as the theoretical framework for this research. One or more of the grants was administered by BCL.



I have been interested in cybernetics since the time I bought (1949) the very first edition of « Cybernetics » at Herman et Cie in Paris. The following year I founded the «Cercle d'Etudes Cybernétiques », under the aegis of Louis de Broglie and the approval of of Wiener. In 1951 I published the first communication to Académie des Sciences containing the word « cybernétique » in its title. In 1954 I spent three months at MIT (Foreign Students Summer Project) and visited Wiener both at his home in Cambridge and his country house at Tamworth.

I published many papers in the fields of cybernetics and systems, introducing « observation operators » (1951-1957), the use of information for wave functions (1968), « structure transfers » (1975), a generalization of Laplace transform (1986), « epistemo-praxiology » (1987), new views on the perception of duration (1991), « epsilon distribution » (1994). In 1995 I published a book : «laquo; Cognition et SystŹme »raquo;. One of my recent papers is about Heinz von Foerster (2006).

While I was professor at Université Paris-Nord, I became President of « CollŹge de Systémique » (1981-1984), Editor in Chief of « Revue Internationale de Systémique » (1987-1989) and Honorary Fellow (1979) of the « World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics » (WOSC). Then, Professor emeritus (1985), I was awarded the « Norbert Wiener Memorial Gold Medal » (1990), and, after being Director-General from 1987, I became President (2003) of the WOSC and (2008) Honorary President of AFSCET (French association for systems sciences).


Barbara Dawes

I resonated with Phil Guddemi's remarks as I, too, was at the University of California, Santa Cruz at the same time but under different circumstances. I had escaped my role as a Palo Alto housewife and returned to school as a single Mom, caring for two teenage boys and a daughter experiencing her first taste of 'higher' education. It's probably understandable that Phil and I don't remember meeting, even though the campus was small and I, too, was an Anthropology major.

I was completely carried away by Bob Scholte, a Dutch Anthropologist who was interested in the Ethnology of Anthropological Traditions and who introduced me to French Structuralism and Claude Levi Strauss' aesthetic rigor where the 'goal requires an affective, historicist orientation' which attempts 'to understand the past for the sake of the past' and 'by suspending judgment as to present utility, we make that judgment ultimately possible.' Bob became my intellectual guru and, like a passionate schoolgirl, I was captured by the poetry of Levi Strauss' words. 'Like the pebble which marks the surface of the wave which circles as it passes through it, I must throw myself into the water if I am to plumb the depths.'(Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques, 1955:396)

Bob Scholte was a protege of Gregory Bateson and was the one who arranged Bateson's coming to UCSC. Gregory was the man I didn't quite understand but I would never miss his invitation to our class to gather in his living room for conversation and I attended all his lectures. I knew what he was saying was important. He was like an itch I could not quite reach to scratch. I think I was learning through osmosis and when, later, after a year of discovering that no one 'understood' Levi-Strauss in Allan Dundees' Department of Folklore at UCBerkeley, I found a post graduate course in Cybernetics at San Jose State University created by Bill Reckmeyer. Thus began my formal training in cybernetics.

I was also fortunate to have had Bela H. Banathy for my tutor in Systems Thinking in Education leading to a M.Ed. and the beginning of PATTERNS which was originally sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). It wasn't until I became acquainted with Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana that I gave up on the Educational System as a hopeless dinosaur and admitted that the exploration of the cybernetic perspective is that which gives me pleasure and therefore would be the impetus for the publication of PATTERNS .



My legal blindness went undiagnosed until age 9, masked by adaptations sensitizing me to my own phenomenology and circularity as the essence of persistence / stability.

At 12 I first read Wiener and Ashby, within the already distorted context of cybernetics being about robots and 'intelligent' computers. After 3 decades of doggedly steering counter to the positivistic / objectivistic mindset AI entailed I found I'd circled back to cybernetics, navigating via waypoints not always strongly associated with the field.

Undergrad studies in anthropology (Mead, Bateson) and psychology (Lewin, Angyal) led to exploring 'systems' and tangential topics (Fuller, von Bertalanffy, von Foerster, Spencer Brown). Graduate studies in - and rebellion against - AI and 'cognitive science' led me to Maturana, Varela and Pask. When American academia self-admittedly failed at supporting my quest I moved to Sweden, where 'cybernetics' wasn't a quaint anachronism. Doctoral work recasting collaborative decision support systems in terms of observers and languaging sealed my fate (branded a 'cybernetician').


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